Getting older means going downhill. Hearing goes, sight worsens, memory stutters, everything takes twice as long. We head inexorably towards Shakespeare’s “second childishness and mere oblivion/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.

Or do we?

Ageing often feels like a downhill slide, and research shows that older people are worse than younger people on almost all measures studied. That is one conclusion from Ian Stuart-Hamilton’s The Psychology of Ageing. First published in 1991 and now in its fifth edition, it’s “a comprehensive overview of the psychological processes of ageing”. I’ve read it so you don’t have to!

As well as physical decline, older people are less able than younger ones to solve new problems, identify patterns, or use logic in new situations – known as “fluid intelligence”. (Though fortunately, we do increase in wisdom and are good at using learned knowledge and experience, or “crystallized intelligence”.)

Is the research reliable?

But that is not the whole story, as Hamilton-Stuart shows. There are plenty of questions about the research. I’m especially interested as I regularly take part in studies on ageing. From a month of extra exercise to see if it affects my appetite, to hours in a hellish onscreen “robot factory” with electrodes on my head, to “brain training” exercises for the Protect study, I contribute to the statistics.

So I’m aware at first hand of some of the issues. Older people come from a broad base in terms of education, social background and age (say 60 -75), compared with younger people who are mainly students. Students are more likely to play computer games – that’s my excuse for my many failures in the robot factory! Generally, it’s hard to take account of all the variables which could affect results and to come up with a difference between old and young which is solely down to ageing.

There’s also an issue with what questions studies are answering and how results are interpreted. So older people tend to be worse at intelligence tests under lab conditions, says Hamilton-Stuart. But is that significant, given that most get by perfectly well when they’re “working at their own pace in their own world, and not trying to follow essentially unrealistic commands in an unrealistic world over which they have little control.”

It’s all relative

We’re rightly concerned about older people who live with debilitating disability for years. But fortunately, most of us will go downhill fairly slowly until our last few months of life. We may be less fit and less on the ball, than our younger selves, but we manage:

Older people often have significantly worse memories and other cognitive skills than younger adults. For most older people, this has little real impact on everyday life. Being a little slower to learn how to use a new mobile phone or retrieve the name of an infrequently encountered person is irksome, but that is all.

Compensation

Performing poorly in intelligence tests has little relevance to how well older people cope in the real world. We accommodate our limitations by using our experience and knowledge, both consciously and unconsciously. If we struggle with hearing, we turn up the volume, ask people to speak slower, or – eventually – get a hearing aid.

But also, our brains compensate by finding work-arounds. For example, filling in the blanks where we’ve not quite heard the words (and occasionally getting it spectacularly wrong). It’s possible, Hamilton-Stuart says, that ‘memory changes in later life might be the result of the ageing brain compensating for loss as best it can by drawing as many resources as it can muster’. Perhaps that’s also why older people get mentally tired so much quicker.

Downhill slowly

We can’t escape going downhill. Compared to young people, compared to our younger selves, there’s been real decline. But Hamilton-Stuart shows that:

  • the skills measured don’t always matter in everyday life
  • we can often compensate for abilities we lose
  • it is usually decline rather than complete loss.

So, ‘even though there may be some decline this should never, with the exception of dementia, be sufficient to mar a productive and happy later life.’

We may be going downhill, but we can take the steps slowly, and enjoy the view.

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